Thursday, December 17, 2015

800 Words: The Testament of George Lucas Part 1

Skywalker Ranch: 2006

It was Babylon. The world of the 70’s was Babylon. We’d lost our way, and all we had left was nihilism. Francis, Marty, Stanley, they all grew up in New York, and by the time they were old enough to make movies, the best days of New York were behind them. All they knew how to show us was despair.

Steve and I were Californians, Millius and Barwood and Murch were here by college. We believed in the future. We believed in ourselves. We knew we were good guys and we were ready to fight bad guys. We believed in moral triumphs. We believed in America. Everybody else was rioting and getting laid and doing drugs, but we were monks in film school. Sure, I’d make out and pet in my truck like every other kid and we’d smoke grass at parties, but we had our sights set on bigger things. We were Jedis, it never occurred to us to lose hope.

Marty and Francis, they’re not bad guys, but they make things too complicated. They’re too Catholic. All that time in the Big Apple surrounded by millions of people makes them worry too much - they should have come out west earlier when it could have done them some good. By the time Francis came out here, he was too New York already. If they ever spent time working on a farm or camping in a forest or looking up at the night sky a field, they would understand that the world is much more magical than they’ve ever imagined.

They believe in ambiguity. but any common sense would see that those ambiguities are resolved. If you chase your own tale like that, you can never cope with what life is. People don’t need to reflect, they need to keep going. That’s why we have religion, that’s why we have myths, that’s why we have stories. We need things that excite us. All those critics like John Simon and Pauline Kael wrote it off as kid stuff, but what the hell is Moses parting the Red Sea and frogs jumping around Egypt? Kid stuff. Achilles might as well duel Hector with a light sabre.  I wanted to make an exciting story, because that’s what myths are. That’s what religion is. They give us hope that we can through dangers. Why do talented people like Francis want to grind our noses into despair? Don’t we have enough of that already?

They’re so New York that they never understood what movies were. They went to too many Broadway shows, met too many people, their schedules were too full. Movies for them are just a play in the theater with a camera. Marty can do a film a year because the design in all of his movies are the same. All you have to do is point a camera at a New York street and do something arty and you have a Martin Scorsese Picture.

They never understood that the most important thing about movies was never the people. We’re not Shakespeare. The camera is a machine, machines are the most important part of modern life, and the camera’s the tool we have to capture how we relate to machines. There isn’t any scene in Marty or Francis’s work that can be as powerful as those monkeys looking at the monolith or Chaplin dancing around the factory.

I believe in God, but nobody else does these days. The only mystery they have is when they think about what these machines are and how they work. People need that mystery. They need the lessons religion teaches us. But stories about beating the ploughshares don’t do anything. They need myths about what our machines are, what they can do for us, where they can take us. That’s what’ll get them out of bed in the morning. We don’t have heaven and hell anymore, so we need new places to go that a simple soundstage just doesn’t do for us. We need images like Yoda floating the spaceship out of the river - when people see that, they see a miracle. And once they see it, they’ll hear Yoda’s speech about the force beforehand as the Sermon on the Mount.

The Force is God for America. It doesn’t matter which God you believe in as long as you believe in God. I put The Force into the movie as a way of showing young people that they should believe in God. Young people need to believe that there’s something out there with the power to change things, because young people are the powerless. If they believe that the world won’t change, then the world won’t change. The worst thing that can happen to them is to struggle with these questions, once they start doubting the goodness in universe, they start doubting the goodness in themselves. The universe is just too big, we have to believe in something bigger. If we believe, then eventually we’re gonna find that bigger thing. It’ll probably take another million years, but we just need to be patient and believe we will.

I just wanted to create a small personal statement about faith that ran against all those pessimistic things you heard from Hollywood. Every culture has faith, every culture has ways of seeing the world that are in common with each other and pass through the generations. It binds them together, helps them deal with the pain of living, and makes them human. But our society doesn’t have that. We think we’ve evolved past that. But past all the machines and all the cool cars, we haven’t gotten any more complicated than anyone anywhere else.  

Even after everybody told me that it was going to be the bigger than Jesus Christ, I didn’t believe them. I just had no idea just how badly America needed this movie. I was happy when it began to seem that Star Wars would do some good in the world. Nothing made me happier than hearing that just about every single religion in America was using Star Wars as a tool to teach young people about faith, but by the time I made Star Wars, America was so secular that entertainment would pass for a religious experience.

I’d rather there be a religion out there, but if Star Wars turns out to be our religion, then at least I’ll have done something good. Maybe the Mormons’ll find a way to work it into their books. I created the American Myth. The American Bible, the Bhagavad Gita. I bet that when Homer finally came out with The Odyssey, everybody said that sucked too and the Iliad was a hundred times better. But history’s going to show that it’s the better of the two. Long after The Godfather and Taxi Driver disappear, Star Wars will still be here.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

800 Words: South Park's Last Stand: Part 1

Critical accolades aside, it was a sad day when Trey Parker and Matt Stone started getting treated as public intellectuals. It’s bad enough that my generation trusts comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as our most reliable news sources, but when South Park’s creators decided that lifetime presidency of the dick-and-fart brigade wasn’t enough for them, it signaled that something in our society truly was truly amiss.

What made (makes) Stewart and Colbert work is that their politics worked as comedy first, politics second. Yes, Jon Stewart spent sixteen years cheerleading for his (our) team, but neither he nor we could help the fact that Republicans gave him so much good material. Unassailably progressive though they might be, they were comedians first. They had just enough reverence that they could dial down the comedy when it was appropriate.

On their least funny day, Matt Stone and Trey Parker are funnier than either Stewart or Colbert are on their best. South Park is, in my opinion, the funniest TV show ever aired. It's almost beyond question. Nevertheless, if you’re willing to sacrifice everything to a joke, your show can’t help but be nihilism central. It’s extremely seductive logic to say that every pretension is worth puncturing, every aspiration is worth making fun of. In a cosmic sense, perhaps they’re exactly right, but when you’ve decided to make fun of every single attitude that demonstrates dissatisfaction with the larger world, you create two enormous problems.

The first is that, by definition, if you make fun of everyone with aspirations, you become a powerful agent for anyone who wants to preserve the status quo. Furthermore, now that Parker and Stone have made a 20-year career upholding the status quo so lucratively, it stands to reason that they don’t just want to preserve the status quo; they’re deeply, deeply in love with it. The tasteless 'wrongness' of South Park is offset, and perhaps made palatable, by a bizarre wholesomeness - a deep love of and nostalgia for childhood in Middle America, where the screwedupness of everyday life is something accepted and often celebrated. Against the constant barrage of dirty jokes are gentle musical numbers and a deep trust in the wisdom of children (who with their unfiltered bullshit detectors always see through the messes their parents create). There are many moments when South Park can seem like the bizarrely wholesome spawn of Satan and The Waltons.  

Along with that wholesomeness comes a searing anger about how badly their way of life is under threat from coastal liberals and their trendy politically correct notions; and that leads us to the second, in some ways still larger, problem. By deciding that every aspiration that defies common sense is equally worthy of puncturing, the show becomes little more than a needle looking for bubbles to puncture. Whatever one’s opinion of South Park’s obviously libertarian politics, it’s still pretty obvious to most people that as a TV show, great as South Park still is, it never quite rose to the level of The Simpsons during its best years, or Seinfeld, or Cheers, or even Arrested Development. South Park offers laughter and not a little intelligence. Watching it can also be one of the most unpleasant experiences on television.

In a way that those other shows never quite were, South Park is truly merciless - usually in great ways, but sometimes in bad ones too. When Isaac Hayes quit because they made fun of Scientology, they could have spared Isaac Hayes the public hard feelings, since his involvement probably went a long way to getting them on the air in the first place. Instead, they went as far out of their way as humanly conceivable to publicly humiliate him. South Park raises immaturity to an artform, and because they do, they miss out on a lot of deeper ways in which they can be subversive and more exciting.

Nevertheless, in some ways, South Park is more miraculous than any of those shows. Seinfeld, a show about nothing and minutiae, would never have known what tone to take in an America changed by 9/11. Even the often brutal satire of The Simpsons, at its best the greatest show that ever was or will be, was still too gentle for the harshness of the 21st century, and 14 years later, the show still hasn’t recovered. Arrested Development was never allowed to blossom properly. We never saw what they could do with 6 or 7 consecutive seasons, let alone 19…

Among situation comedies, South Park stands absolutely alone - a 19 year old comedy which people with a brain still watch. No other show adapted so well to so many eras, and no other show could adapt so well, for the simple fact that South Park has one trump card no other show has. 

South Park has one or two kinds of jokes that they do extraordinarily well, and they simply do them over, and over, and over again. It’s a testament to how well they do it that after nearly 20 years, the joke stays this funny. Nevertheless, it would not surprise me if, when we go back to South Park episodes the age of sixty, these jokes are nowhere near as funny as we currently still think they are.

That trump card should be obvious - it’s the notion that every idea in America deserves to be made fun of to the fullest, most pulverizing extent to which the law allows. Week after week, South Park finds new sacred cows (no pun intended) to satirize. Inevitably, when you’ve sent up hundreds upon hundreds of pervasive ideas in American life, there will be something within that collection that every person disagrees with to a rage-inspiring extent. Even so, we all deserve our turn on the chopping block, and it’s all too easy to say that everything deserves to be made fun of when it isn’t your ox that’s being gored. So long as American life churns out new trends, there will be an endless amount of grist for South Park’s mill.

This is what makes South fantastically funny, it’s also the reason South Park has never been more than fantastically funny. South Park is one of the last cultural bastions of ‘Can Do American Optimism,’ it’s one of the few cultural products in America that still takes it as a given that the world’s problems can be solved by nothing but good old-fashioned common sense. But after the financial crisis in 2008, it’s plainly clear that our reliance on Common Sense very nearly brought the country to ruin. Our country can’t even agree upon what common sense is.

South Park has no real agenda beyond giving a nationally televised middle finger to anybody who tells us what we should care about. This would not be a problem if South Park didn’t want to be taken seriously. But in spite of its protestations to the contrary, the show clearly, clearly, CLEARLY wants to be taken very, very, VERY SERIOUSLY...

Far more than The Daily Show and its ilk, South Park takes pride in thinking independently and not sparing its audience conclusions that many people in its fan base would find incredibly objectionable. Over the years South Park compared Stem Cell research to Frankenstein (“Manbearpig”) it wrote off Wikileaks as a force corrosive to our privacy as TMZ and Twitter, it heavily implied that second-hand smoking is not something anyone should be concerned by, it conducted a debate about the Iraq War by making it seem as though characters representing both sides had equally legitimate points and grievances.

It’s a testament to how funny South Park truly was that it could have gotten so many things wrong (many more than just what’s above), and still be amazingly funny so often. If The Daily Show got it wrong half so often as South Park has, people would have tuned out long ago because The Daily Show is much more beholden to its political content. Unlike The Daily Show or Colbert, South Park not particularly beholden to any political movement. And yet, its their very lack of political commitment that makes South Park incredibly dogmatic in its anti-dogma.

For all the complexities of South Park’s many attempts to explain our political climate, the animating message can boil down to “everything would be fine if you all weren’t so busy trying to fuck it up.” Behind South Park’s facade of pulling no punches, it pulls the biggest punch of them all: “for all our ridiculousness,” it seems to say, “we’re all reasonable, rational people, and if we simply sit down and talk to one another, we can work out our differences.”

It’s a very late-20th century attitude to 21st century problems. In a manner which Stewart and Colbert never were, their attitude is a relic from an age when liberals and conservatives had roughly equal amounts of power and seemed equally irrational. In the era of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, there is something about South Park’s worldview that seems not only naive, but increasingly dinosaur-like.

After watching season 19, it’s impossible to not think that Stone and Parker know this. There was something valedictory about this whole run, as though the world they love has become so distant from them that the show no longer has a reason to exist except as a megaphone from which they can preach.

It’s not the worst reason to keep a show going. I agree with well over 50% of what they say, and comedians as gifted as they will always find every potential laugh - even if the ground is nowhere near as fertile as it once was.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Rocco and His Brothers: When Facebook Posts Become Blogging Again

Warning: Here followeth a depressed rant about our generation.
Last night I went to the Charles Theater for a revival of Spirited Away. The capacity must be nearly a thousand seats, and every seat was filled, at least a hundred people must have been turned away at the box office, and there were even some extra seats installed in the back.
Spirited Away is a good movie. I enjoyed it when I saw it in the theater when it was first released, and I enjoyed it even more last night. But if it's now a classic, it's a classic the way Snow White or Cinderella is - a movie about a frustrated young girl whom everybody comes to love and experiences wonders of a magical world that has nothing better to do than to somehow be at her beckon call. Visually, it's a stunning movie, maybe even a perfect one. Emotionally, it's a movie we all should have outgrown when we were nine.
Twenty-four hours later, I came back to see the 1960 Italian movie: Rocco and his Brothers, in a stunning print. It's a movie about family, poverty, immigration, love, desperation, lust, wrath, forgiveness, and betrayal. In its way it reenacts the most primal mythical stories from Cain and Abel, to Eteocles and Polynices, to Claudius and the Ghost. But it's entirely modern and a remake could just as easily take place with a fictional Latino family in Upper Fells. It's as contemporary as it is eternal.
Rocco and His Brothers is no way a perfect movie, but its imperfections function at such a high level that you see that even when it goes over the top, it shoots for the moon, and perhaps even overshoots. It's historically a missing link - it's a novel on celluloid that goes so far into the raging id of the human psyche that there is never any getting out on the other side the same person you were when you went in. On one side of Rocco stands The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, Il Trovatore, The Grapes of Wrath. On the other side stands The Godfather, Mean Streets, The Last Picture Show, The Deer Hunter and especially Raging Bull.
For this movie that can stand with the best of Coppola and Dostoevsky, there were twenty people in the theater - I made sure to count. I think I spotted an acquaintance a few rows ahead of me, and this person, certainly an intelligent one if it's whom I think it was, cackled hysterically at a few of the more over-the-top scenes. If a hundred other mutual acquaintances were there, three-quarters of them would probably have the same reaction. We've become so ironic that most of us don't feel anything at all - our music is too noisy to have highs or lows, our movies have far more set pieces than characters, and most of the books we read are conceptual fiction about characters who by definition have very little relation to our own lives. This is our society.
We're all still children, and fifty years from now, we'll probably die children.
Have a nice Friday.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

800 Words: Last Tango in Paris - The Stupidest Movie Ever Made

On Monday Night, November 30th, I saw Last Tango in Paris at the Charles Theater Revival Series. It was not only the second time I saw the movie, it was the second time I saw the movie at the Charles, just to make sure that my risible impression from the first time I saw it at the Charles was correct.  

Oh my god was it ever… There are no words for how dumb this movie is. It caused an enormous scandal in the 70’s, because it so blatantly portrayed sex on the screen. Were it made today, it would cause just as large a scandal, because it so blatantly portrays rape. Not only does it portray rape, it portrays a pneumatic nubile girl who enjoys being raped. Marlon Brando is not Marlon Brando in this movie, he’s just an ageing lowlife who with the pure power of his sexual being can ensnare a luminously beautiful young girl. Marlon Brando spends the entire movie with his clothes on, not even so much as a butt cheek - while she spends more than 50% of the movie undressed. Not surprisingly, nobody ever took this actress seriously, Maria Schneider, ever again. She died last year, a justifiably bitter old woman who made a choice when she was in her 20’s when she had no idea how it would color the rest of her career. This is not just the stupidest movie ever made, it also might be the most sexist.

If it were made today, it would be picketed at every theater it played in America, but if the people who picketed it ever stopped to watch it, they would collapse into laughter. I don’t know exactly when it would happen: maybe it would happen when Brando fucks the girl in the ass with the help of a giant stick of butter, maybe it would happen when Marlon Brando responds to questions about his name by screeching like a monkey, but it couldn’t possibly not happen later in the movie when the girl fingers Brando’s asshole while he makes her promise him that she would swallow his vomit.

Fifty years ago, pretentious snuff like this was practically a cottage industry, catering to people who spent their free hours at movie theaters which showed foreign films 12 hours every day. In 1960’s America, foreign films were a hundred times more popular than they are today. Many of these films were the transcendent crown jewels of the artform, and many of these films were the kind of pretentious trash that today make a new generation of film snobs urinate with laughter. How could our parents have ever have fallen for this shit?

The answer is, of course: Sex, Sex, and More Sex.

If you dress sex up in pretentious bullshit, it’s amazing what people will (no pun intended) swallow. Allow me to give just one example: in 1966, Michelangelo Antonioni made Blowup, a snail-paced slow ‘thriller’ which supposedly does triple duty as a chronicle of ‘Swingin’ London’ (which I can believe…), and also as a cinematic investigation into epistemology (the study of what we really know). But the only reason people swallow the philosophic bullshit is because people want to see David Hemmings have a threesome with two teenagers. Cut to 1994, I was twelve years old when I first saw this movie. For the first forty-five minutes, I was bored out of my gourd. Then the threesome happened, and by the end of the movie it was the deepest thing I’d ever seen in my life.

I don’t know if anyone else ever came up with the name for this phenomenon, but my name for it is ‘High Trash.’ High Trash is my short-hand term for vulgarity that gives the appearance of art because of how it’s dressed up. The line between the two can be razor thin, but it’s still fairly easy to tell the difference with just one question - is the primary reason you’re watching this because of the sex and violence, or is it because it has something truly compelling to say?

By this metric, you would have to call all your favorite art into question. I don’t want to spend 5000 words doing that, so let’s simply say that so long as civilization exists, High Trash will always thrive. It’s a virus, though hardly the worst of viruses, that makes a place for itself by feeding off a host of genuine art. Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover arrived within five years of each other, Lolita and The Story of O within just one year each other.

In our own time, think of the two most ‘defining’ TV shows of the last ten years: Mad Men and Game of Thrones. These are two TV shows that have the exact opposite approaches to sex. Mad Men treats sex, and everything else, with severe restraint. Joan Holloway practically redefined sex for the 21st century, but you never see her so much as in a bra - in the entire show, the most reveal you ever see of her is her bare shoulders. Yet Joan Holloway clearly drove men insane in 2010 just as she did in 1960.

Game of Thrones, on the other hand, treats sex like embarrassment of riches. If you can conceive of the act, Game of Thrones might well dramatize it before its run is over. In Game of Thrones, sex is simply part of the furniture, nothing more. Nobody over the age of 17 could possibly find it erotic. It’s just another way in which Game of Thrones hits us all over the head with its blatantness. Shows do not get more trashy than Game of Thrones. Everybody can pretend they watch it for the intricacies of the history of its world, but we all know better, because we all watch it too, and we all know what we really care about. Underneath all the intricacy, all the hundreds of characters, the thousands of years of fake history, Game of Thrones is pure wall-to-wall trash, but it’s the most artful trash you’ll ever see.

Sex on film is a very, very tough thing to do well, because film works best by suggestion. Pornography notwithstanding, nothing on screen can possibly be as erotic to you as the things you can imagine, so a sexualized person with her/his clothes gives a hundred times more prompts to the imagination. Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield at their most clothed inspired a hundred times more teenage wet dreams than any number of Hollywood actresses which later generations saw nude routinely, and this must all the more so be true in the age of ‘youporn.’

There’s a quote I love from George Steiner - “Pornographers subvert this last, vital privacy; they do our imagining for us. They take away the words that were of the night and shout them over the roof-tops, making them hollow.”  

The appeal, and the nightmare, of pornography is that it lets you imagine that sex is perfectly normal. No matter how dirty the porn, because it’s not us doing it, it lets us imagine that these gross urges of ours are far more attractive, more humane, more attainable, cleaner, than they really are. “If people are acting this out for our enjoyment, surely sex is no more dangerous than going to the bathroom.”

Pornography takes all the dark mystery out of sex and makes it into something no less boring and domesticated than a valve we need to release once a day or so (this time pun intended). We don’t see the back stories of the girls who do this work that they probably find incredibly degrading, we don’t see the producers cheat their actors out of the money and probably mistreat the women.

This is, ultimately, why Last Tango, in all its gross absurdity, still resounds in the mind years after you see it as a unique disaster among all movies. When viewed from the outside, there is nothing in the world so ridiculous as sex. Not even Brando, the most legendary actor in American history, can possibly convey an experience as personal as what sex means to each of us. Sex is an experience so unique to each person that there is no containing it within a camera: pornography that is successful is so because it corresponds to what a person’s image of what sex should be, but the world of sex is something so diverse that nothing has yet been invented that can portray in art the universal nature of the act.

The arts don't do sex particularly well, because nothing in art can be as vivid as sex is. What art does better than anything is death, because death is the fundamental fact of human nature about which we know absolutely nothing - death is an apparent ceasing of sensation, the nature of which we can only have an infinity of guesses with no confirmation. Perhaps closer in complexity to sex is war, and we have certain works that correspond to the nature of war: certainly Tolstoy’s War and Peace conveys the complexity of war, but Tolstoy would never do the same for sex; in fact, he loathed sex and thought it was something so dirty that he wrote a treatise advising the entire world to abstain from it.  In 1998, Steven Spielberg finally conjured what veterans regard as a image of what being in war truly feels like with Saving Private Ryan. Even so, Spielberg is just about the least interested in sex of any filmmaker in the history of the medium, so he’s obviously not the person who would be able to capture sex properly. Goya certainly captured something about war in his portrait of an execution in the Third of May, 1808, you see the stark image of the man about to executed and his terror at his impending mortality - but is that a picture of war or death? The painter of The Nude Maja was certainly no stranger to sex, but it’s hard to imagine that that painting was meant as anything but as commissioned pornography by a nobleman.

No doubt, if you’re going to find sex captured real form, the best place to look is in visual art. Just to give a few examples from memory and a quick google search… Certainly, we get a sense of sex’s dangerous allure in Hieronymous Bosch’s paintings, but Bosch uses sex as a cautionary tale. “As delightful as it seems, think of the horrors that await you in Hell!” Klimt’s fantastically titled “Die Frau und die Selbstbefriedigung” The bliss on the woman’s face does really seem like whatever “Selbstbefriedigung” is, but aside from that, there’s nothing particularly profound about it. Picasso’s famous Demoiselle D’Avignon, is an incredibly powerful picture of brothel workers, and it’s even more powerful if you go to see it in person at MOMA in New York. Nevertheless, while it tells us that sex is a very powerful thing, it tells us very little about what makes it so powerful.

The closest we get to that world-shaking profundity is probably just Courbet’s Origin of the World, which is a picture of a vagina. The point of this painting is not sex, the point is us. It is the place from whence we all came and where we all long to go again. Is it the most profound work of art ever conceived, or just a painted muff with an incredibly clever title?

Perhaps therein lies (again excuse the double ententre) the point. To contain sex like that would be to make it into a kind of domesticated pet, which is the very last thing sex is - perhaps especially now in the modern world. since contraception has unleashed this cosmic urge from most of the considerations of pregnancy.

All the men in the world could be convinced, as we no doubt should be, that a concept in male society like rape culture absolutely exists, that a system not unlike a patriarchy was long ago put into place to keep women from achieving on the same level as men, and that men constantly and subtly perpetrate something not unlike microaggressions onto women. But the power dynamics within sex would not change, because next to death, it is the most powerful force in the world. It existed for billions of years before humans did, and will exist for billions of years after humans cease to exist. Nothing in our lives: modernity, civilization, or suburbia, can prepare us for the power of an urge so primeval. You could get rid of every oppressive superstructure that supposedly turns (or allows) some people to commit acts of evil and you’d still have to deal with the stinking savage urges that well up without warning from the depths of a consciousness that predates animals infinitely less biologically advanced than humans.

So perhaps Last Tango in Paris is not quite so stupid as I think it is. Nobody needs to see human animals at their most caterwauling and lustful, but at least Last Tango makes an effort to portray it in good faith. Perhaps it isn’t quite as bad as I give it credit for being. But even if it isn’t, I don’t want to find out for another ten years...

Saturday, November 28, 2015

800 Words: Wye Oak - In Praise of Bad Music

November 12th was the night that Wye Oak performed with the Baltimore Symphony at the Meyerhoff, and it what every orchestral concert in Baltimore should be. During the long happy hour in the lobby before the performance, there were moments when a knowledgeable musiclover might feel as though he was transported to the 19th century, when a classical concert meant something completely different, almost opposite, of what it means today.
All of musical Baltimore was there - every good musician in town, every bad musician, every musical connoisseur, every musical groupie, seemingly of all ages, seemingly all genres, all cliques, all rivals. It was not so much a musical event as a musical gathering. In the lobby you see a former colleague about whom you still have murder fantasies, and you both stand socializing in concentric social circles as you chat up a potential new musical colleague, and pray that she isn’t eavesdropping so she can tell him to run away screaming before it’s too late. When you get inside the hall, you see that twenty feet in front of you stands the friend with whom you’ve fallen in love and she’s with her new beau, and she has to pass by you to get her seat, so you both pretend not to notice each other. Every seat is of an equal price, and since thirty of your friends are there, you awkwardly keep walking around until you find one who has an open seat next to him.

In other words, it was exactly what every classical concert should be. All due praise to Rafaela Dreisen and the BSO marketing department for making it happen so brilliantly. It’s just a shame that the music sucked.

Wye Oak is in no way a bad band. Their music is a perfectly pleasant melding of bland folk music with bland electronica. There are so many bland bands out there with big dreams that only luck can explain why Wye Oak attracts a national following while two dozen local indie bands almost indistinguishable from them languish in the obscurity Wye Oak also deserves.

In fact, as music, Wye Oak is modestly good, if not more than that. They create moderately interesting harmonic progressions and draw nice sounds out of their instruments with a rich, full wall of sound that - unlike so many rock bands -  they seem willing to dial down into softness. Their lyrics, utterly inaudible until you look them up online, are the usual metaphysical nonsense. They’re mildly better than your mind’s generic idea of what an indie band sounds like, but no more than that. Like so many indie bands, the aesthetic is more important than the music - any potential emotional content in their songs are flattened so that highs and lows, happiness and sadness, seem nearly indistinguishable. What I think people respond to them is the insouciance of their music, a Britpop like emotional flatness in the face of life’s vicissitudes that lots of people mistaken for emotional resilience.

...Actually, that’s not a bad description of the Smalltimore crowd who clearly responds so well to Wye Oak’s musicmaking - ersatz rebellion and faux solidarity masquerading as emotional strength and political commitment in the face of the overwhelming poverty all around us. Even so, if you have to give people what they want, you could do worse than Wye Oak.
The truth is that classical music in its alleged Golden Age was no better than this. There are few people in any generation who go to concerts and museums and theaters for transcendent experiences, they go as a social outing to pass the time and meet up with friends. Until the emergence of Wagner, most 19th century concerts were not meant to be transcendent experiences, they were vehicles for virtuosic performers to perform showpieces by composers about whom we’ve completely forgotten. They were operettas full of the kind of light entertainment that seems completely old-fashioned and stuffy to most classical audiences of today, who prefer their opera with high doses of grim suffering.

As classical music got more and more serious, its audiences became correspondingly smaller and smaller. Life is hard enough, so many people reason, without being reminded of how difficult it is when all you want is to be entertained. You have to admit, they have a point…

Would that the concert was more entertaining. The dull music was interrupted by a number of painfully pompous commentaries upon it in the form of interviews between the WTMD DJ Alex Cortright and the BSO's assistant conductor Nicholas Hersch. The tone of these interviews was so stuffy that I wouldn't blame half the audience for never coming to the Meyerhoff ever again.

The set by Wye Oak was preceded by a piece by John Luther Adams, a composer whose newfound fame is probably because he has the same name as the much better and better known composer, John Adams. John Luther Adams’s piece, again, was perfectly pleasant without being at all distinguished - a generic piece of minimalism whose only distinguishing characteristic is that it was so slow. And yet, there was something in the music to which the audience clearly responded in a manner they never would to more obviously expressive music. Like Wye Oak, this extremely white audience is clearly stuck in music of forty years ago.

Minimalism is a very loose term, but by-and-large, it was an attempt by composers of the rock generation to take the throbbing rhythms and simple harmonic progressions of Rock music and make sophisticated compositional designs above it. Like the great Rock musicians, minimalist composers had (have) a fascination with Indian music and Buddhism that is both helpful and condescendingly simplistic in the way they worked the sounds of India into their music. Nevertheless, there was a period when minimalism was enormously exciting: in the 1970’s and 80’s, the minimalism of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and John Adams was some of the most exciting classical music written on our side of the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain, but minimalism has long since curdled into something much more stale - Philip Glass is still writing the same aural doodles he wrote forty years ago.

The real musical developments of today happen internationally in a movement even more loosly known as ‘polystylism’, which takes its cue from the Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke, who interpolated as many modern western techniques as he could get his hands on in the midst of Soviet repression. Just as every discovery in Schnittke’s world was like a musical earthquake that shook the foundations of what was possible in the Soviet Union, the most important recent development in music is the astonishing proliferation of global music we’re now able to listen to that is a mere Google or Spotify search away. The best composers currently operating at their peaks, 40-60 something composers like Tan Dun, Osvaldo Golijov, James MacMillan, Michael Daugherty, Jorg Widmann, Thomas Ades, John Zorn, and a host of others, who skewer the music of the entire globe for their ideas and create music like a giant feast with fusion dishes comprised of ingredients from every country. Even the best musicians in Rock, musicians like Sufjan Stevens, Bjork, Radiohead (make your own list), know that the best musical material comes from our unique ability to listening to music from all around the world and all eras and incorporate the best of it into your own personal voice.

A concert comprised of Wye Oak and John Luther Adams is a concert that doesn’t take in anything like the astonishing diversity of modern art music. If this concert gave the audience a real sense of that diversity, they probably wouldn’t like what they heard nearly as much. For well over a hundred years, classical music burrowed itself further and further into its notions of integrity and art, and as a result, hardly anybody listens to classical music anymore. Perhaps what we need to survive is the same kind of bad music you get in every other genre. The music may suck, but at least it’s ‘our’ music and performing it will help orchestras survive into another generation. And who knows, maybe before long a few of the people who like Wye Oak might ay even learn to love Mahler or Jorg Widmann...

Friday, November 27, 2015

800 Words: What is Theater For?

I’m going to start this article with the most left-handed compliment I can think of. In my by no means expert opinion, two of the three best plays in the very small canon of American Theater are August Wilson’s two Pulitzer winning plays from the late 80s: Fences and The Piano Lesson.

It would be ludicrous to pretend that either of the two is close to flawless, and I can easily think of well over a dozen musicals I’d prefer watching to either that are better constructed, more entertaining, and more moving. Some of them aren’t even by Stephen Sondheim!

But the only other work of American ‘straight’ theater that strikes me as anything more profound, more affecting, more entertaining, more original, than that pair by Wilson is that hackneyed to the point of wholesome irrelevance play that every high school has mounted for seventy-five years: Our Town by Thornton Wilder. Our Town is a work of perfect balance. It uses the most bizarre, the most avant-garde, the most alienating grab bag of techniques the theater ever knew how to produce to give the most spiritual possible illumination to the ordinary, the banal.

America doesn’t do theater. Sure, every nerd acted in a few plays in high school, but very few of us have anything to do with theater thereafter. We are, literally, the country of movies and TV. There is almost no reason for an American theater to exist. The best plays, the few plays all cultured people still go out of their ways to see and read and remember, were all premiered by the early 60’s. A Long Day’s Journey into Night is most people’s choice for the ‘Great American Play’, and in America’s cultural memory, it’s a piece of the mid-50’s. But Eugene O’Neill wrote it by 1942 and only allowed it to be premiered after he died. He's fundamentally a playwright of the inter-war years when London, not New York, was still the center of the English-speaking theater. There’s no question that O’Neill’s a great American playwright, but there’s little that’s American about O'Neill. Both A Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh could just as easily take place in Ireland as in America.

By 1947, Tennessee Williams wrote his two immortal plays - The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. He wrote a number of plays in the 50’s that could still join those other two in the ‘canon’, but everybody seems to agree that his last play that touches greatness is Night of the Iguana, which premiered in 1961. He spent his last twenty years as a sad drunken celebrity, celebrated for accomplishments that were a generation in the past but knowing that there's no way he could ever equal them again.

Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman in 1949, The Crucible in 1953, A View from the Bridge in 1955. He went silent for ten years, during which he married, divorced, wrote screenplays for, and mourned, Marilyn Monroe. After A View from the Bridge, he lived another 50 years. He wrote many more plays as an older man, all of which were premiered with the best actors and directors in the best theaters on Broadway with extreme advance hype. Some of them did respectably well, yet everyone who hoped that Miller would once again speak with his old voice was disappointed.
Miller and Williams were both dinosaurs by the time they were fifty. When American movies were as good as they began to be in the late-60’s, there was no reason for theater to merit people’s attention. Year by year, more of the best talent went westward to California, and Broadway had the ‘leavings.’ During the first half of the century, if you wanted to understand America, you had to spend some time in New York or Chicago; but in the second half, you had to spend that time in the West.

In the following generations, if you were at gifted writer of dialogue, it was almost a given that you went into movies, not theater. A screenwriter doesn’t have nearly as much power as a playwright, but in today’s world, a successful screenwriter makes thousands of times more money and has an audience thousands of times as large. Even if the power dynamic between director and writer is reversed in movies, it is this very reversal which ensures that the director who interprets his work will be hundreds of times more competent than the directors who generally get their hands on a playwright’s work in the theater.

Generally speaking, to be a writer in contemporary America that devotes himself to the theater rather than film or TV, you either have to be one of three things: insane, mediocre, or of a specialty much narrower than an American. Arthur Miller understood what it meant to write plays that speak for the American everyman, but if you asked him to write about any other subject, he wouldn’t know how to do it. In an era when the world is dominated by niches, a work of art can’t plausibly presume to speak for everyone. 

In the generation after Williams and Miller, the dominant American playwright is unquestionably David Mamet. There’s no doubting that Mamet is a great playwright of a certain kind, but there’s something almost sociopathic about his plays. His plays are less considerations about human feelings and failings than they are elaborate mind puzzles which trap his characters inside a maze of suffering and rarely ask his audiences to feel anything but contempt for his case studies. It’s not surprising that as he draws closer to old age he’s become the textbook definition of a hectoring conservative. Mamet is also smart enough to do as much work in movies and TV as he does in theater, but even David Mamet hasn’t had an unqualified theatrical hit since Oleanna, his dangerous and ballsy 1992 examination of political correctness that would be picketed every day of a modern Broadway run. 

Edward Albee is also a great playwright, but he’s a playwright of narrow vision and focus, without much horizon beyond displays of great contempt for the rich Wasp class to which he still belongs. His last unqualified hit was 2002’s The Goat, which I had the great pleasure of seeing in 2004 London during only it’s second run with Jonathan Pryce and a very young Eddie Redmayne (though he’s exactly my age…). But great as Albee’s plays can be, they are as nasty and sadistic as Mamet’s and far less universal than Mamet’s in relatability. In the early 2000’s, he’d scored in The Goat, which was a hit because, like all his other hits, he sends up the taboos of rich intellectual WASPs, and he was only able to make a hit in the 2000’s by including bestiality. But even when the theme of the play is bestiality, it’s a miracle that Edward Albee could ever score a hit in the 21st century. He has about as much relevance to contemporary culture as a fainting couch.

Speaking of no relevance to American life, how is Neil Simon suddenly so unremembered and unloved? For thirty years, he was easily the most beloved playwright in America, portraying New Yorkers in a manner that made them instantly relateable outside the New York bubble in a manner Woody Allen’s movies never were. Nevertheless, like Woody Allen, Neil Simon represents a world that no longer exists; the world when New York was the center of culture, the world when plays were more important than movies; when Broadway connoted even more frision in people’s minds than Hollywood, the world when all the songs everybody knew came from Tin Pan Alley. For most people, Neil Simon’s main attraction was nostalgia for that era. In an era when people are finally too young to feel that nostalgia, his name suddenly disappeared. 

There are others who are also-rans at best. At this point, Sam Shepard hasn’t had a hit in nearly thirty years, and by now is as well remembered for playing Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff (itself not a particularly well-known movie) as he is for any of his plays. Tracy Letts is rather derivative, Christopher Durang’s popularity subsists on schtick that improv comics do every night, while John Patrick Shanley and David Auburn seem like one-hit wonders. I still haven’t seen anything by Horton Foote or Lanford Wilson, and I’ll be seeing my first Donald Margulies plays in a week or two (hopefully, more on them in the next issue). 

America is too diverse to ever be captured on anything so small as a stage. Modern theater, with all the lumbering history it carries within itself - is unfit for a stage as grand as America. Few in our visual age will ever accept a new playwright who flits as Shakespeare did from place to place in thirty seconds with only words to paint the scene. Few in our ironic age will ever accept a sincere attempt by a new playwright at Shakespearean flights of rhetoric. Few in our democratic age will ever accept the Greek idea that the most tragic figures must fall from a height. Few in our era of widespread creature comforts will ever accept the Ibsenite idea that every trip to the theater requires the audience to see a politically radical upending of society’s expectations (though that doesn’t stop today’s theater from trying...). These demands for scenery in place of language, for everyday characters no more articulate than the man on the street, for the continual flattery of traditional mores, makes for the kind of experience that renders drama as limp as Hamlet elocuted by Keanu Reeves. Drama requires use of language to describe the world rather than visuals, it needs grand mythical characters rather than everyday men and women, it needs radical tinkering with deeply held beliefs, and these are the most un-American choices an artist can make.

This is why the most interesting modern American dramatists are the ones who choose a very narrow focus within America. The distance which most of us have from narrow subjects is what makes us able to see the characters involved as people larger-than-life. August Wilson can write a character like Troy Maxson and in him we see not only a conflicted father and adult coping with the effects of extreme racism and abuse, but the eternal pain and dashed hopes of the entire Black experience in America. Tony Kushner can resurrect Roy Cohn from recent history, and in him we see thousands of years of homosexual self-loathing. Wendy Wasserstein can create Heidi Holland, and in her we see not just a naive girl in New York, but perhaps the first generation of women in world history with opportunities that begin to approach the opportunities of their male peers. In each of these cases, it’s the fact that most Americans can’t relate to the particulars of these characters that make them charismatic and compelling.  

But if you want to create a mythology for the whole of America rather than a small part of it, it’s almost a given that you can only do it with the immensity and flexibility of the modern screen. I recently found a list of the 100 greatest screenplays from the Writer’s Guild Association of America. Obviously, they needed to skew the list towards more contemporary movies to make people pay attention - it’s generally taken as a given that as special effects gradually subsumed movies, Hollywood screenplays gradually became more simple-minded just as Broadway did. By and large, that’s probably true, but look at this honor roll of screenplays from just the last 50 years they listed:
Chinatown, Annie Hall, Network, The Godfather (I & II), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Graduate, Dr. Strangelove, Pulp Fiction, Tootsie, The Shawshank Redemption, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Groundhog Day, Fargo, The Usual Suspects, Midnight Cowboy, American Beauty, The Sting, When Harry Met Sally, Goodfellas, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Taxi Driver, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Schindler’s List, The Sixth Sense, Broadcast News, All The President’s Men, Manhattan, Apocalypse Now, Back to the Future, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Ordinary People, LA Confidential, The Silence of the Lambs, Moonstruck, Jaws, Terms of Endearment, Jerry Maguire, ET, Star Wars, Dog Day Afternoon, The Lion in Winter, Thelma and Louise, Amadeus, Being John Malkovich, Raging Bull, Adaptation, Rocky, The Producers, Witness, Being There, Cool Hand Luke, The Princess Bride, Harold and Maude, Field of Dreams, Forrest Gump, Sideways, The Verdict, Do the Right Thing, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Wild Bunch, and Memento.

You don’t have to like, see, or even have heard of all these movies to notice the difference. It also doesn’t hurt this point to admit that a handful of these were written by professional playwrights, or that three of these were plays before they were movies. And yet, most of these, were they made 30-50 years earlier, would have been created to be plays, and most of them would make damn good ones. It’s probably only a matter of time before Broadway, so risk-averse by now that they fashion nearly every new musical from a hit movie, decides that if they can make musicals from movies, why can’t they make plays? Translating a screenplay to a play takes a lot less work than translating a screenplay into a musical.

There was a time, perhaps only a brief one, when it truly wasn’t like this. In the 1950’s, Small Town America, fresh from its ‘European excursion,’ had a real fling with culture. American young adults of the 1950s spent their adolescence in the 30’s, when they watched movies whose directors were European theater technicians, scored by eminent European composers, featuring villains played by eminent European actors. Many of them spent the 1940’s going on ‘trips’ to Europe, where they saw people living in situations which seemed to them of a deprivation and degradation unimaginable even to the most desperate throes of The Great Depression. These soldiers saw firsthand that culture and art was all which Europeans had to sustain themselves through a century of death. When the American soldiers returned, they had their own grief through which they had to process, and even Hollywood’s best movies of that period weren’t reliable guides through it. 

It would be another twenty-five years before movies as good as Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter could truly explore the full darkness of war. In the WWII Era and its aftermath, it was mostly in that European form: the Novel, that Americans could process what it meant to survive a war: just in mid-century America, we had A Farewell to Arms, For Whom The Bell Tolls, The Naked and the Dead, The Good Earth, The Thin Red Line, Johnny Tremain, Battle Cry, Catch-22, The Winds of War, The Caine Mutiny, Johnny Got His Gun, The Hunters, From Here to Eternity; a little later, we also had alternative, more actively pacifist, takes on war like Slaughterhouse Five. If you wanted to read international or classic fiction, you could also process war by reading War and Peace, All Quiet on the Western Front, Bridge Over the River Kwai, Goodbye to All That, Gone with the Wind, The Quiet American, Homage to Catalonia, Doctor Zhivago, Empire of the Sun, Red Cavalry, Life and Fate, Journey to the End of the Night, Men at Arms, Les Miserables, Lord of the Rings,The Last of the Mohicans, Covenant with Death, Parade’s End, The Debacle, All three parts of Henry VI, The Aeneid, The Iliad, and the Peloponnesian Wars and so many others. Nevertheless, war is a canvas much too vast to be contained by the theater stage, even in Shakespeare, war was more often something almost incidental to the plots rather than central. If Shakespeare couldn’t do it, then there was no point when American theater had anything profound to say about something so consequential to life as mass death. Even so, American theater certainly benefitted from the renewed American attention to profundity.

There can’t be much more than half-a-dozen plays from this era that will still command a substantial audience in a hundred years, but when you combine the output of great plays we all love with the great novels of the period we still read, and the art we still look at with the musicals we listen to, you begin to realize that this era was glorious. Until now, it seems the best that ‘the arts’ will ever do in America, and it was completely over in less than twenty years. 

America is not a house made to shelter playwrights and novelists and composers and painters. Creativity incubated within the European model of solitary creation can’t possibly sustain itself in a country that demands a headline a week from its celebrities. There were literally dozens, perhaps hundreds, of young intellectual celebrities whose genius-level inspiration dried up by the Kennedy Assassination. The arts are a European plant which we attempted to put down on American soil - there was no way the plant was ever going to take root without substantial mutations. It is probably impossible to be a great artist and also be a modern celebrity. 

This is why the appearance of August Wilson is so encouraging. He’s no Shakespeare, and he doesn’t need to be. In 400 years, he’ll probably be considered a compelling but minor voice - of his ten plays from the “Pittsburgh Cycle”, his reputation’s truly only made from four of them: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Fences, and The Piano Lesson. Of those four, only the latter two seem to inspire genuine love in their audiences. When I saw Fences at Everyman Theater last week, I realized that it was as profoundly moving a play as anything I’ll ever see in a theater, but even so, it’s a play with very serious flaws. 

Rather than dramatizing Troy Maxson’s story, we simply hear about it in retrospect. The fight between father and son is circled around for so long that by the time we see how it happens, it’s almost anti-climactic - and perhaps it’s meant to be. A character as dominating as Troy Maxson requires that the wattage on all the other characters be turned down, but Wilson could have turned the theatrical screws still tighter by making Troy’s wife and son into legitimate counterweights with enough personal baggage that the outcome of psychological battles between them are not a foregone conclusion. 

And yet, when Troy Maxson describes his wrestling match with death, you can hear echoes within it from Jacob wrestling with the Angel to Gilgamesh wrestling with Enkidu, from Reverend Barbee’s sermon in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to Martin Luther King’s Mountaintop speech. The isolation of Black culture from White American life means that Wilson can employ a heightened, Shakespeare-like form of Black rhetoric without sounding absurd to white ears. The effect is the kind of awesome sublimity that reminds you why some of us sit through mediocre production after production, hoping that once in a blue moon, we can experience a moment exactly like this.

Fences works because every family prosperous enough to afford a theater ticket has a man or woman as iconic as Troy Maxson - the all too vivid link to what your family was like when times, difficult as they may still be, were so much harder. Whether your family’s Troy had anything near as hard a life as Troy did, seeing Troy at this dramatic juncture is like seeing a home movie of a legendary but long-deceased grandparent with the full power of their personality scorching from the screen. Or remembering that iconic moment in your life when your most larger-than-life relative relates everything to you about what made him the person he was. It’s the work of oral history that every family can only wish for.

Within the universe of August Wilson is a reorientation from one kind of play to another. Ever since Ibsen and Strindberg, theater has been a refuge where political radicals can dramatize the social ills of society in a confrontational manner that forces the audience to reconsider everything about their place in the universe. 

The problem with this view of theater is that it views art as nothing more than a subordinate arm to social justice. Nevertheless, it’s a model that worked brilliantly for theater for a long, long time. While the great Russians - Tolstoy and Dostoevsky - bewitched the world with novels whose only limitation was the human imagination, the great Scandinavians - Ibsen and Strindberg - trapped audiences in their own living rooms and mercilessly showed them what was wrong with their lives. Was this use of theater as a didactic tool of any ultimate benefit to mankind… well… Who cares? What’s done is done. 

This model did, however, work as theater for a long time, because such questions of social justice are not just political. They force each of us to ask questions about the state of our own souls, our well-being, our place in the world and the universe. That, ultimately, is what any powerful work of art should be able to make us do. At least in that sense, history proved that social justice is a subordinate arm to art. 

But with every passing generation, that copy of Ibsen’s original revelation gets dimmer. We have long since realized as much as we’re ever going to that it’s wrong to trap women in the role of bourgeois housewife, and that modern society places impossible demands on families that require obscene dishonesty and hypocrisy to fulfill. Ibsen survives because we can all relate to the situations he describes, and our great-grandchildren will probably relate to them too. 

Politics is never far from art, and hopefully this ‘magazine’ will be a living testimony to that fact, but art is much larger than politics. Art is not simply a hammer to create the society we want to live in, it is, among many other things, a space where we can contemplate exactly what society we want to live in long and hard before we ever pick up that hammer. The saying allegedly goes: “Be careful what you wish for because it may come true.” Before we even agitate for any social change, we have to be as sure as humanly possible that the social change we long to see is the correct change.
This is why it is so crucial for us all to seek out artists who can render so specifically what it’s like to be a person whose experience is so different than your own - who can point out all those subtle places where their experiences are just like yours, and all those perhaps more obvious places where the experiences are 100% different. You can, perhaps, get this perspective by seeking out people who are different from you in your own life, but you can never truly be an outside observer to your own life. It is only through the balance sheet that great art brings us that we can get something resembling an objective view of what life is really like. 

You can’t separate art from politics, but you can separate politics from art. The truths art elicits are deeper and more elusive than anything that can be captured in any political ideology. Anyone who cares about art more than politics can immediately spot an artist whose first duty is to his creation as easily as we can spot a hack who uses art as a nail on which he can hang his message. It’s by art that we will acquire a deeper appreciation of the best way to approach politics, not the other way around. 

In 2015, David Mamet seems more and more like another dinosaur - his plays are a bit like Scorsese movies with a proscenium and without the violence. So now that Mamet has been put out to pasture, just about everybody who watches theater would agree that the two great recent playwrights who are still relevant are August Wilson, even though he’s been dead for ten years, and Tony Kushner.
Both Wilson and Kushner have long experience as political radicals. Perhaps the passion of their radicalism animated them to create what they did, but politics was not the point of what they wrote. The point of what they wrote was to humanize types of people who otherwise would have very little humanity in the eyes of your average upper-middle-class white theater audience.

Tony Kushner is THE playwright of our era. And yet he’s basically known for a single play, Angels in America, which was premiered twenty-two years ago. Granted, the play is actually three plays presented over two nights, but in some ways, there lies the problem. There is no questioning that Angels in America is a powerful work, but its power comes in spite of the fact that there are parts of it that seem almost unwatchably bad. He’s tried, twice, to replicate the success of Angels with similarly ambitious canvases, I’ve neither seen nor read either attempt, but both received mostly negative reviews. 

The problem with Angels in America is that politics keeps creeping in. It isn’t simply enough to portray Republican opponents as real people who perhaps have terribly mistaken beliefs. Instead, Kushner feels the need, over and over again, to sermonize against their beliefs, just in case we don’t get the message - as though this would come as any kind of provocation to your average theatergoer, who is liberal enough that they would agree with anything Kushner has to say about Republicans. When you add to this that Kushner uses the play to champion the innocence of Ethel Rosenberg, even though more evidence turns up of her guilt with every decade, this sermonizing turns into an unpardonable sin. In 2015, as Republicans become more and more insane, Angels in America seems more important than ever, perhaps even prophetic; but time and distance do weird things. In a few generations, nobody’s going to care about the political fights of our time, and these passages will probably feel as stale to us as Clifford Odets inveighing against capitalist robber barons during the Great Depression. 

Angels in America works not because of its political agenda but in spite of it. It works because of Kushner’s obviously deep familiarity with his subject. Just as August Wilson can capture the rhythms and flavor of what it means to be black, Tony Kushner can capture the rhythms and flavor of what it means to be gay. It works because of it humanizes gay people to liberal hypocrites who support gay rights in the abstract but judge the gay people in their own lives. 

And there lies the rub. At least in the cases of August Wilson and Tony Kushner, unlike the case of Arthur Miller, we encounter artists who clearly know whereof they speak. Both Wilson and Kushner understand from the inside how people like their characters think, how they talk, what they talk about, and what they do. Arthur Miller’s great strength is that he can write so generally that his ‘everymen’ feel mythical, as though they could be standins for you or I or anybody else. But Miller, for his considerable strengths, could never write Willy Loman as anything more specific than an American everyman, or Eddie Carbone as anything but the ‘boobus Americanus.’ So how much more out of place would he have felt had the world of letters demanded him to write more specifically about what it meant to be a New York Jewish immigrant as Henry Roth or Bernard Malamud did? If Arthur Miller had to spend his career peppering his plays with local color, his is a name we’d probably never hear.

If a writer tried to do what Arthur Miller did today, it would be risible. American experience in recent decades is so diverse that the only everyman that everybody agrees represents all of America is Homer Simpson - a badly drawn TV cartoon avatar whose only limit for the situations a writer can plausibly put him in is, once again, just the human imagination. 

Movies and TV have rendered theater almost irrelevant in America. As a way of rendering the entire American experience, there is no way theater can compete with them. In musical theater, Stephen Sondheim managed the trick, but only because of his deep familiarity with older, more Europe-influenced, forms of music theater - vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, classical music, and other such genres which hold no interest for his erstwhile successors. 

Until somebody figures out a way to continue Sondheim’s way of doing music theater, we’re still stuck with the diminishing returns of the Ibsen model - socially relevant dramas that take place in a living room. What we need in something as small as the theater is small subjects, and record all the minute details of life in very specific circumstances, and giving them the full attention and dignity they deserve. And by doing that, we can create something universal. The audience will see these people who appear so different from them, and experience the exact sort of mimesis Aristotle said that great tragedy should inspire in us. When we watch Troy Maxson, everybody sees own father. When we watch Louis Ironson, everybody sees their close cousin who mysteriously dropped out of their lives as an adult. When we watch Joe and Harper Pitt, everybody sees the couple next door with a husband who’s clearly trapped in the closet. When we watch Berniece or Lena Younger, everybody sees their own mother or grandmother whose unshakeable love and faith kept their families together. When we watch Boy Willie or Walter Younger, everybody feels their own desperation to prove ourselves to a world that conspires to make us fail. 

It’s only by recording the small subjects in front of our noses that today’s playwright can create anything universal. The more specific the subject, the more universal it gets. Everybody knows people like these characters, and by the audience seeing the similarities in these characters to people in their own lives, drama does, yet again, what art is supposed to do.